Spatial proximity amplifies valence in emotional memory and defensive approach-avoidance

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Abstract

In urban areas, people often have to stand or move in close proximity to others. The egocentric distance to stimuli is a powerful determinant of defensive behavior in animals. Yet, little is known about how spatial proximity to others alters defensive responses in humans. We hypothesized that the valence of social cues scales with egocentric distance, such that proximal social stimuli have more positive or negative valence than distal stimuli. This would predict enhanced defensive responses to proximal threat and reduced defensive responses to proximal reward. We tested this hypothesis across four experiments using 3-D virtual reality simulations. Results from Experiment 1 confirmed that proximal social stimuli facilitate defensive responses, as indexed by fear-potentiated startle, relative to distal stimuli. Experiment 2 revealed that interpersonal defensive boundaries flexibly increase with aversive learning. Experiment 3 examined whether spatial proximity enhances memory for aversive experiences. Fear memories for social threats encroaching on the body were more persistent than those acquired at greater interpersonal distances, as indexed by startle. Lastly, Experiment 4 examined how egocentric distance influenced startle responses to social threats during defensive approach and avoidance. Whereas fear-potentiated startle increased with proximity when participants actively avoided receiving shocks, startle decreased with proximity when participants tolerated shocks to receive monetary rewards, implicating opposing gradients of distance on threat versus reward. Thus, proximity in egocentric space amplifies the valence of social stimuli that, in turn, facilitates emotional memory and approach-avoidance responses. These findings have implications for understanding the consequences of increased urbanization on affective interpersonal behavior.

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